My father used to say to me: "Don't go into teaching literature. There's no money in it."
But as a lecturer in English at a large university, I've come to the conclusion that he was wrong. Teaching literature at university is all about money - as well as power, status and bureaucracy. What my father should have said is: "Don't go into teaching literature. There's no literature in it."
This is, in part, because of the crushing weight of the institution, bearing down on the subject and academics through institutional audits, departmental audits, funding applications, research plans, periodic reviews, peer reviews, admissions, regulations, meetings, meetings about meetings and surveillance.
These pressures mean that the time academics spend actually reading literature is reduced to a minimum. The last time I saw an academic reading a book in my department was ... erm ... no, I can't recall.
Reading can't be measured, weighed, or accounted for by statistics. It has no place in institutions governed by notions of output. The god-forsaken research assessment exercise (RAE) places all its emphasis on what academics have "produced", either in terms of books, journal articles, or research funding.
Precisely what the RAE does not assess, though, is real research, in the form of reading books. As for assessing outlandish literary concepts, such as imagination, creativity, beauty or joy - these vanished off the radar long ago.
And they have disappeared for literary academics themselves. But institutional audits and the RAE can't take all the blame for the grind of modern literary studies. No, academics mirror back the practices and assumptions of these mechanisms. Literary academics don't talk to each other about books. God forbid. Instead, they talk endlessly about the RAE, institutional audits, meetings, meetings about meetings, career structures, who knows whom in which institution.
There is no idea among lecturers or students that literary criticism might have something to do with criticism - ie making informed value judgments about what's good and what isn't. Nor, in fact, does literary criticism have much to do with the literary any more: as I say, it's all about history, politics and social contexts.
This is because the ruling class in literary academia is now made up of Marxists, feminists and post-colonialists - and, yes, the idea of Marxists as a ruling class is meant to sound paradoxical.
These are the same people who were once so revolutionary (in a limited, institutional sense), overturning those terrible, benighted people of the past - those people who misguidedly just read the words on the page, who discussed issues, such as quality, who thought literature mattered on its own terms, not just in relation to politics and history.
By contrast, with the new ruling class, literature is almost effaced under the weight of their various political programmes; literature is now deeply suspect, because it is seen as part of the histories that this ruling class detest.
Literature of the past is there to be invaded, colonised, and (where necessary) annihilated by the theories of the new ruling class - because the new ruling class of literary academia knows better than those poor, uncivilised texts of the past. The idea that perhaps the best literature is sticking up two fingers at any ruling class never crosses anyone's mind.
I have met feminist academics who teach the students only about the covers of books. I have worked with other feminists who dismiss the work of Shakespeare and Dickens and other male writers as sexist, racist rubbish. I have worked with academics who tell students never to quote from the primary texts, just from other critics. I have worked with Marxist academics, who literally shred all of their books because they're available on CD-rom. Books are the product of a degenerate, bourgeois, capitalist society. (Computers obviously are not.)
If he were alive, I can't even begin to imagine how to explain the logic behind this to my father: here are people who teach literature for a living destroying literature, literally and figuratively.
There are, though, isolated moments where beauty, imagination, feeling, love and even literature are glimpsed, a moment when a student says: "I cried when I read Tintern Abbey," or when a mature student tells me that "Middlemarch changed my life."
Perhaps that's the best we can hope for - that, between the cracks of the university, away from its crushing gaze, when no one is looking, or auditing, or theorising, literature and its beauties might still peek through.
Literature, after all, will outlast these institutions and their ruling classes, just as the weeds outlast the "marble citys" in John Clare's great poem, The Flitting:
Time looks on pomp with careless moods
Or killing apathys disdain
- So where old marble citys stood
Poor persecuted weeds remain
She feels a love for little things
That very few can feel beside
And still the grass eternal springs
Where castles stood and grandeur died
· Dr Taylor is a lecturer in English and creative writing. His memoir, Take Me Home: Parkinson's, My Father, Myself will be published by Granta in September 2007
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Your thesis statement is the central argument of your essay. It must be concise and well-written.
- Your thesis goes in the introductory paragraph. Don't hide it; make it clearly asserted at the beginning of your paper.
- Your thesis must make an argument. It is the road map to the argument you will subsequently develop in your paper.
The key difference between an opinion statement and thesis statement is that a thesis conveys to the reader that the claim being offered has been thoroughly explored and is defendable by evidence. It answers the "what" question (what is the argument?) and it gives the reader a clue as to the "why" question (why is this argument the most persuasive?).
Examples of good thesis statements:
- "The ability to purchase television advertising is essential for any candidate's bid for election to the Senate because television reaches millions of people and thus has the ability to dramatically increase name recognition."
- The organizational structure of the United Nations, namely consensus voting in the security council, makes it incapable of preventing war between major powers."
1. Thesis statements must make a claim or argument. They are not statements of fact.
Statement of fact: "A candidates ability to afford television advertising can have an impact on the outcome of Congressional elections." This is essentially an indisputable point and therefore, not a thesis statement.
Similarly, the claim "The United Nations was established to promote diplomacy between major powers." is not likely to inspire much debate.
2. Thesis statements are not merely opinion statements.
Statement of opinion:"Congressional elections are simply the result of who has the most money." This statement does make a claim, but in this format it is too much of an opinion and not enough of an argument.
Similarly, "The United Nations is incapable of preventing war" is closer to a thesis statement than the factual statement above because it raises a point that is debatable. But in this format, it doesn't offer the reader much information; it sounds like the author is simply stating a viewpoint that may or may not be substantiated by evidence.
In conclusion, your thesis should make clear what your argument is; it should also provide the reader with some indication of why your argument is persuasive.
For example: In the congressional elections example, why is money important (and whose money? The candidates'? Corporations'? Special interests'?), are other factors irrelevant (the candidates' views on the issues?) and for which types of elections is this true (is your argument equally true for Senatorial elections and elections for the House of Representatives? Why or why not?)?
In the other example, you will need to think about why the United Nations is not capable of preventing war. Your thesis should indicate that you have an understanding of the relevant historical circumstances and that you are aware of alternative explanations.
Of course, one can re-work a thesis statement indefinitely and one can almost always find something at fault with it. The point is that you must be sure that your thesis statement is indicating to your reader that you have an argument to make.
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